Kenneth Jacobson

How John Kerry Could Have Made a Constructive Speech

For those of us who deeply believe that it is in Israel’s interest to achieve a two-state solution and who are concerned by those on the right who are more vociferously calling for a one-state solution, what therefore is wrong about the U.N. vote on settlements and the Kerry speech?

Didn’t Obama and Kerry do a service for Israel, as Tom Friedman indicated, by not letting a friend drive drunk?

In the abstract, this may be true. International diplomacy and politics, however, exist in the real world. The Israeli public, to a significant degree, sees the Obama-Kerry steps as confirming the lack of trust between the parties going back to the beginning of the president’s first term.

The President’s initial decision to give a speech to the Muslim world from Cairo without visiting nearby Israel and then following up by his first Middle East initiative, calling on Israel to freeze settlements, set the path for the unfortunate relationship culminating this past week.

One must recall that Obama’s early focus on settlements followed a disastrous eight years for Israelis who watched three prime ministers take significant steps to bring about a two-state solution, only to be received by the Palestinians with rejection, the Second Intifada, followed by rockets and terror from Gaza.

What Israelis needed to hear from the new President was an understanding that Israel had made extraordinary efforts to achieve peace, under three very different kinds of political leaders, and that the U.S. would stand with them in trying to bring change on the Palestinian side.

Indeed, what was necessary was not the frustration the White House expressed early on with both sides to the conflict, but recognition that the Palestinians remained the main obstacle to achieving peace and reconciliation.

In other words, the kind of speech that George W. Bush gave on July 24, 2002.

Recall in that address, seen by many as the most pro-Israel speech given by a President, Bush called for a Palestinian state. But he did so in the context of a realization that Palestinians had done everything in their power to make the achievement of the state impossible to date. His clear-eyed view of why there was no progress was reassuring to Israelis at a difficult time (the Second intifada was still raging). Eventually, knowing that the president had Israel’s back resulted in Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and later Ehud Olmert’s offer to the Palestinians, which went even further than Barak’s – and Bill Clinton’s – at Camp David.

This is what has been missing in the Obama years, even with the very real strong U.S.-Israel military relationship that needs to be acknowledged. The perception by most Israelis that the Obama administration did not understand or chose not to understand the reality that Israel faced became the prism through which specific actions taken by the White House would be seen.

And so even when certain things needed to be said, as here by Kerry, about the importance of preserving the possibility of a two-state solution, they are seen in the context of the lack of trust in White House intentions.

Was there a way to do it differently? Very much so. The U.S. should have vetoed the Security Council resolution, not on the grounds that there was no settlement problem, but because the venue was fundamentally biased, because East Jerusalem was inappropriately thrown in the mix, and because it was going to embolden in negative ways several constituencies.

Among those constituencies were the Palestinians who would deepen their rejectionism, the international community, which would expand its disgraceful anti-Israel animus, the far left in America that will be encouraged in its Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions initiatives, and the far right in Israel that will move more intently on settlements and preventing two states.

A Kerry speech could then have made the legitimate point about concerns regarding a two-state solution but with a very different balance. Instead of passing remarks about the need for Palestinians to stop the incitement and negotiate in good faith, which served as trimming to the main course, the bashing of Israel on settlements, Kerry should have reversed the message.

How refreshing and constructive it could have been for the Secretary to identify the continuing root cause of the conflict: Palestinian rejection of the Jewish state rooted in Palestinian rejection of the three thousand year connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. If his passion were focused on moving the Palestinians finally to abandon its historic rejectionism and a call for the international community to do likewise, then a call on Israel as well to take care to keep open the possibility of two-states would have been much more palatable and well-received.

At the very least, in the Obama administration’s last days, it should do everything to prevent theunnecessary French sponsored international conference from doing even more damage to the chances for peace.

The lesson going forward should be clear: the Trump Administration would do well to be seen as an unreserved friend of Israel while still ensuring that eventually, when the Palestinians are ready, the vision of two states for two people living in peace and security can be realized.

Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.

About the Author
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.